Losing With Word Games

It’s January 2022 and Wordle— also in German, French and Spanish— has become the ninth stage of COVID. And to nobody’s surprise, Wordle has gotten some good Twitter press by language teachers who advocate for its use. This happens every few years: a word game shows up, and people love it.

Varied word games’ common threads include the use of fine visual perception, logic and target-language knowledge to find words. Word games include Hangman, Wordle, crossword puzzles, word searches, acrostics and so forth.
So, today’s question: Should I use word games in my language classroom?

My answer: Generally, no. And why not?

Well, first principles: language is acquired only by processing comprehended input in a communicative context. And a communicative context is a situation where meaning is created, negotiated and/or exchanged for a given purpose. Meaning is something non-linguistic: enjoying a story, gathering information, evaluating information, etc.

So, what are the problems with word games?

First, you have know the word you are looking for. For example, in Hangman or Wordle, we might get to this: __ R __ L L. If you have lots of English, you will make some guesses such as troll, droll, trill, drill and so on. If you are a learner of English, you will be blindly throwing letters in there, hoping for a hit, and if you get it, you probably won’t know the word’s meaning.

Second, you are not processing meaning with these games. You can find words in a word search, Hangman game or Wordle simply by using logic, visual recognition and guesswork. When Wordle tells you that your __ R _ L L guess, DRILL, is correct, yaaay! you won, and you don’t have to know what “drill” means.

Third, Wordle, Hangman and acrostics are hard in additional languages. I can solve any English Wordle in three lines. Spanish, French and German Wordles completely kick my ass…and I have way more of those languages than do most learners in high school or college.

Textbook publishers sell the wordgame parts of their books & workbooks by arguing that eg “trying to remember French words will help kids acquire them.” Now, there is research from conscious learning domains which says something like, if you practice recalling something, you will remember it better (this is why eg flashcards work). But this is not true for language acquisition. The language version of this is, the more often you process a word in a communicative context (ie hear/read it), the more likely you are to remember it.

Acrostics are especially stupid. If you can see the word, you circle it. Again, you can do this without attending to meaning. I’m reminded of Sudoku. When I saw my first Sudoku, I first figured out what to do (basically if X is here, then Y cannot be, rinse and repeat), which was interesting. Actually doing a Sudoku involves almost zero brain: follow the procedure and you get there. Basically, if a computer can generate it, it’s boring to do.

If you want to play games in the TL, here are two suggestions which involve zero prep, are fun, and involve processing meaning.

1. Grab the pen. After you read/create a story, or do anything, get the kids in pairs, put a pen between members of each pair, and say either a true or a false TL statement about your reading, story etc aloud. If they agree, they have to grab the pen. They get a point for grabbing the pen first, but they lose a point if they grab the pen when the statement is false. This game seems ridiculous but kids love it.

2. Who Am I Describing? Divide the class into 2-6 teams. Make a TL statement about anyone in the class, or any character in the story, or somebody famous, etc. EG: this girl rides a motorcyle or this boy really likes ballet. The first person who puts up their hand sand says you are describing ____ gets a point for their team. You can make this simple– I have played this on Day One after our first story– or complex, by eg lying about people.

PQA Without Output? Sure!

Image result for self conscious student"
We don’t want our kids to feel self-conscious…which is what speaking often does, especially for beginners.

Great question on CI Liftoff today: how do we do PQA without forcing output? Don’t students have to talk during PQA?

Yes, they do, but only to indicate comprehension. You could have them answer questions in English— which sometimes is a good idea, because that is the fastest way to know exactly how much they understand— but…but…but…it’s kinda cool to stay in the target language, right? Right? Sure!

So how do we do personalised questions and answers— PQA— with minimal output? Easy! But first, let us remind ourselves: science says, people do not need to speak the target language to acquire it. They need only understand the message. So teachers— those new to C.I., and those who have levels 1 and 2— need to ditch the kids-must-talk urge.

So what do we do? Easy. We use ourselves as models in PQA conversations.

Say I want to teach them the essential teen words “I can drive (a car)”. I will write on the board— with translation— puedo manejar un carro.

Then, I will say a few sentences, such as clase, ¿qué quiere decir “puedo manejar”? and “puedo manejar los Ferrari, pero no puedo manejar los Toyota Yaris.” I will do comprehension checks.

Then, I ask eg Granthi— who cannot shut up about cars— ¿puedes manejar? He will answer with or no. Then I ask, what did I just ask you? and he will (hopefully) say can you drive?

Now, we are all set. I am going to ask Granthi first— and then others— ¿puedes manejar?-type questions, restate answers, and talk about myself, like this:

Granthi, ¿puedes manejar bien?

Granthi, yo no puedo manejar bien. Tengo muchas multas (fines). ¿Tienes multas?

¿No? ¿No tienes multas? ¿Eres experto en manejar?

Bueno, eres experto en manejar. Yo no lo soy. ¿Qué manejas— un Mercedes o un Dodge Caravan?
un Mercedes.

Bueno— tú manejas un Mercedes…pero YO manejo un Ferrari.
ya whatever Mr Stolz I saw your Yaris in the parking lot.

¡Granthi! No es mi Yaris. Es el Yaris de mi novia, Angelina Jolie. Ella no maneja el Yaris porque ella maneja mi Ferrari.
ya whatever she’s rich why would she even HAVE a Yaris?

¡Granthi! Ang tiene un Yaris para disfraz (disguise). Es muy famosa. A veces, ella maneja su Yaris.

All we have to do is ask questions, have kids provide answers, and we model “proper”— ie more complex— answers by comparing ourselves (or other students, such as native speakers) with students.

So…do we need output other than yes, no or one-word answers? Nope…and kids will acquire just fine.

Soap Operas? Hells Yea!

Check this:

So after weather and date, for our daily opener, I ask the kids ¿qué hiciste ayer? (what did you do yesterday?), and sometimes they talk about dates and romance. I encourage them to lie heh heh, and sometimes they do, and sometimes we actually hear about their real lives.  Because it was impossible for me to remember who was with who, I started writing down their “dates” on the homework board and they started bringing them up on subsequent days.

So now we do telenovelas every day and the stories are great:

  • Shyla was at the mall with a male friend when her new boyfriend SAW THEM OMG so now he is not texting her.
  • Manpal– the total music-geek hipster– is dating his ukelele.
  • Nihaal was with a girl who is 18″ tall
  • Sharky’s GF is short, ugly and smelly, but since physical appearance doesn’t matter to him he is happy.
  • Hafsa’s ex is now dating her twin sister Hajjar…but Hafsa’s new guy (although not as good-looking as the old one) is nicer, smarter and funnier.

Every day, we add a sentence or two to each of the various dramas. Amazing how much the kids remember and it’s a riot playing around with this endless deployment of mini-stories.

You get to mix a whole lot of grammar together, and you get a lot of buy-in, cos the kids are basically inventing everything. The quieter ones just have to show comprehension.

The trick– as always in C.I.– is to get a load of interesting miles out of very little vocab. One noun and one verb (or other word) per day is loads. So lately we have been focusing on dejó a ___ (s/he dumped ___) and engaño a ___ (s/he cheated on ___). Great soap opera material. The only problem is getting 1st and 2nd person reps but that’s what imaginary text convos are for. Here, Abby dumps Abdul:

Here, Nihaal’s new girlfriend, la rapera Soulja Fraud, has a blood feud with rapero Quavo. So Nihaal threatens to not road trip (to UtAH) with S.F.

Anyway this is major fun.

Update: here is Soap Opera Entry #2

Why is sustained play important for the language classroom?

T.P.R.S. is a kind of creative, collaborative game, really.  Teachers supply the language and story idea; kids supply details and together a story is built.  Sometimes people make fun of us– oh yes, T.P.R.S., talking sharks and flying purple elephants— because, well, a) they’re either stupid or misinformed, or b) they think that the learning world should be– or is– divided into these categories called “serious” and “silly,” and guess where language teaching belongs?  Bottom line: lotsa folks don’t like fun, especially elaborate fun.

Anyway, let’s not hate on the haters, as kids these days say, but rather let’s look at some fascinating research about what Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman call “sustained play” in their great book NurtureShock.  Today’s question:  what does “sustained play” look like, does it help learners, and can we apply it to the T.P.R.S. classroom?

What do kids do when they play?  What did you do when you were a kid?  My friends and I built forts, and dams and rivers when the snow melted, pretended we were cops and robbers, Star Trek characters, bla bla, wrestled, built weird stuff out of Lego, played tag, invented complicated variations on tag, devised wargames… The games were co-ed and the main differences between the guys and the girls was in the toys.  We guys wanted G.I. Joes, Transformers, etc, while the girls liked dolls a bit more…but, interestingly, most of our imaginative play was fully co-ed.  The girls wanted to explore alien planets and have wargame teams as much as the guys did.

What all of this had in common was that, for hours that invariably ended when our Moms called us in for dinner, was that we were in a state of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”  We were unselfconsciously immersed in creative activities that we controlled, activities whose “purpose” was nothing other than having fun.  Now, it turns out that play– which all kids (and loads of adults) all over the world do– has legit developmental purposes.  Kids learn spatio-motor skills, empathy (via role-playing), sharing, etc etc.  There’s a good article about play here. But it turns out that play has other developmental benefits– self-restraint and developing “deep focus”– which can help us in the languages classroom.

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss the “Tools of the Mind pre-school and kindergarten curriculum, created by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, one of whose central aspects is sustained play.  If the kids are learning about firemen, they make a “play plan” where they write down (as well as they can) what they want to do  and who they want to be for “fireman play” (“I am going to be the guy who needs to be rescued from the second storey of a burning house”). Playplan devised, they go to one of five “stations” in the class– firestation, firetruck, burning house, tree with kitty stuck in it, etc– and they play for 45 min.  If they get “off task,” the teacher asks “is that in your play plan?”

The program does other things too: it asks the kids to “self-talk” (create internal monologues about decisions), play “Simon Says” (listen, WAIT AND THINK, and, only then, act), and do “buddy reading,” where one kid gets a flipbook with pictures, and creates and narrates to his/her partner a story based on those pictures, and the other kid asks questions about the story.

The aim of all this?  To develop internal self-awareness, to develop abstract thought, to develop “executive self-control,” and to develop the capacity to focus.  As the data show,  Tools for the Mind works.  Why?  Because the kids set a purpose– one over which they have lots of control and which is both fun and meaningful– and then they are immersed in a state of “flow” in focused, sustained play, which makes their brains get used to long-term focus on something (playing at a role, listening to others, telling  a story, etc).  Crucially, it also teaches them to reflect and wait before talking and acting.

There is a fascinating aside in this chapter: in a 1975 Russian study, Z. V. Manuilenko asked five year olds to stand still, which they did for an average of two minutes. When the same kids to pretend they were on-duty palace guards, they were able to stand still for eleven minutes. Doesn’t work for younger kids and works less-well for older kids, but still…

Bodrova and Leong note that many of the demonstrated benefits of play are not reducible to isolated, time-specific, snapshot-style measurement. Indeed, they argue that the assumption that “the measurement of isolated skills over discrete intervals of time will accurately reflect the mechanisms of development” is wrong. Like language acquisition, play is complex and long-term. Their article is well worth a read.

So how does this apply to the comprehensible input classroom? 

We want ourselves and the kids to get into a state of “flow”– or close to it– defined by Wikipedia roughly as

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, [where] one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

a) When we are using a story, we are “playing” in the sense that we are creating something over which we have control.  The byproduct: kids are learning– or having reinforced their capacity– to focus on– and through– imaginative elaboration.  The kids have to remember details, listen, and contribute.

b) We are asking the kids to engage in intrinsically rewarding– autotelic– activity.  They are not “doing stuff” to learn Language ____.  They don’t “do stuff” for the payment reward of marks.   A good story is interesting in its own right.  I have never in fifteen years of teaching met a kid who didn’t like a story.  Hell, I can– and do– read short stories and even novels aloud to Grade 12 students…and they love it!

In education, what you really want is for kids to not know/realise they are learning. What they do should– insofar as possible– be inherently interesting. As a side-product, they learn facts or skills or whatever.

c) We try to ditch self-consciousness as much as possible.  We don’t force the kids to talk if they can’t or don’t want to (other than easy, choral answers– yes, no, one-word).  We make them feel “safe.”  We do P.Q.A. with our superstars, and our actors are kids who want to act.  This allows us to “smuggle” grammar and vocab into the kids’ minds.

d)  When stories rock, we lose track of time.

e) as far as possible, we try to “blend” action and awareness (of at least language) by keeping things comprehensible and interesting– will the boy find his lost cat?  Will Mother Nature punish the chica mala who is littering Starbucks cups in the Amazon?

The side-effect of T.P.R.S.– one which will benefit kids everywhere, as do the Tools of the Mind practices– is going to be an ability to focus.  Rather than providing a “variety” of “activities” which “address core competencies” and “attributes” and other edubabble, we provide one, deep, long creative and interesting activity: a story.  We’re doing via language what Vipassana does via meditation for the brain.

In a world where kids are on-screen– with texts to answer, “likes” to click on, links to follow and shiny chattery games to play– for four hours a daydeep sustained focus is a crucial skill.  Whatever you do in life, you need to be able to tune in to your activity, tune out distractions, and “soak it up.” And if creative play develops that…awesome!